'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kerala is Different

I spent a month in Kerala recently and this post summarizes some impressions.

"The long bone-rattling drive afterward to Allahabad on potholed roads flooded at places with calf-deep rainwater, past the tin-roofed shacks and rain-battered villages of mud and thatch — the cowering huts, so picturesque from the plane, now appearing frail, in danger of collapsing onto the sodden earth, low-caste women paving tiny courtyards with cow dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and gray over the flat fields and tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools—the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as fixedly as it would have two centuries ago was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of a globalized economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India."

That was just the beginning of an article by Pankaj Mishra titled 'The Other India' written for the New York Review of Books. A lengthy, detailed, searing, brutally honest portrait of the cow-belt, the real 'India Shining', ... I could maybe string together some more such cliches to describe his article but that is not the intent here. I just want to assert that I won't and can't accuse Mishra of belaboring an old point. His story is indeed a very old one but the immense misery of day-to-day life in a huge part of Northern India is a reality that could do at the very least with some relentless belaboring.

None of our political parties has yet made a worthwhile contribution towards turning things around in the Gangetic heartland - and that includes those which fight elections on behalf of the 'aam aadmi'. Indeed, the Congress (yes, Nehru and all) had had a free run of the region for three decades and some before the more obviously 'bad' BJP, SP and BSP came on the scene. Equally shockingly, our mainstream media, the TV news channels in particular, have let things drift for too long(*).

Kerala presents a very different picture. There are a dozen or so news channels vying for viewership and each goes to amazing lengths to cover issues of governance - infrastructure, human rights, education, gender issues, environment, the whole spectrum. No issue of any significance gets left out - dispossessed tribals, victims of chemical pollution, bad roads, real estate mafias, 'quotation' groups, exploited women, illegal quarrying,... nothing. Channels even invite freelancers to compile reports which, while rough-cut, often hit very hard.

But the cardinal sin of glut has begun to undo all gains. Channels have got locked in a paparazzi-like rat-race for the next sensational scoop so the space of 'news consciousness' has got horribly overcrowded - each issue goes 'stale' in days if not hours, too fast for it to have grown in minds for any serious corrective action to be even contemplated. To give an example: a couple of years back, a smart young lady won a contest for 'Best Citizen Journalist' with a feature on the horrible public toilets in Sarkari offices. Many still remember her work as a hard punch in the gut but the toilets remain horrible as ever.


Like most other Indian languages, literature in Malayalam is on the decline. A month back, I asked an eminent writer "Who are the best writers in Malayalam, I mean those in their thirties and forties?" And he said: "There aren't any good ones! The oldies will write till they die and then there won't be any literature!" From my outsider's perch, I can't contest that; all I can say is: Cinema is a good barometer to measure the vitality of a literature and Malayalam cinema is certainly not what it once was.

But Kerala springs another surprise! Go to any bookshop and one sees brand new editions of all the classics - stacks of copies each. Obviously, they are bought - and I am not cynical enough to say they are only bought (I did see an intriguing newspaper headline: "Book sales zoom, Reading declines in Kerala"). And it is not only outstanding works in Malayalam. In my many years in Chennai, I never so much as saw an edition of 'Tirukkural' in any of its many decent bookshops. During my last spell in Kerala, I saw piles of copies of two different Malayalam translations of the Tamil classic in each of the nearly half dozen bookshops I visited!


I saw 'Arjunan Sakshi'. a film with a catchy name and nothing else. Well, not quite nothing. The foreign returned hero is being driven to his apartment after a drunken night out; he asks, very feebly: "Are we on the Mahatma Gandhi road?" and his friend who is on the wheel asks back: "What, want to pay your respects with a ceremonial puke?!" (the original is untranslatable: "enthaa, ninakku vaaluvechu thozhano?")


(*) - The cow belt has suffered from serious and chronic neglect of the visual media. Bollywood, the most powerful among them, is all about Bombay, very occasionally, Delhi, a bit of Punjab (only the Golden Temple and mustard fields) or the Himalayas. But UP/Bihar never ever appears - not even the Taj. The very silly con-caper 'Bunty aur Babli' got a tax exemption from the then UP government only because it was filmed in and around Lucknow and Agra!


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